Reactionary Theology

They say you can always learn from history, and recently, I learned something new.

In the process of studying for a class on Church history, it’s interesting to see how many times movements have been shaped as people react to one another. In the vacuum of fathers in the faith who can say, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ,”¬† it left theological orphans to establish themselves according to whatever made the most sense to them.

And oftentimes, what made the most sense to people was an overreaction (or underreaction) to something someone else was doing.

For example, not meaning to step on any toes here, but in reaction to the Roman Catholic Church’s overemphasis on works, as seen through¬† a series of requirements by which a believer could obtain grace, John Calvin formulated the various doctrines of predestination. The pendulum swung from many works that merited grace to grace belonging only in the hand of a sovereign God.

In reality, scripture requires both of these to exist in tension. Our faith moves the grace of Christ into our lives, yet our faith also is proved through genuine works.

That example is interesting to me, but it doesn’t move me. What grabs at my heart are several examples from the 1800s, during which time several revivals flourished. The first Great Awakening was past and a new Great Awakening had come, leading to famous names of revival like Andrew Murray, Otto Stockmayer, D.L. Moody, John Alexander Dowie, and many others.

What truly hit home is the testimony of D.L. Moody and R.A. Torrey, two of the founders of what is now Moody Church and Moody Bible Institute, my beloved Alma Mater. These two men both experienced and practiced the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and in particular believed for miraculous healing, in their personal ministry. Torry even preached on the subject in his earlier years, or at least he did until something happened.

That something was John Alexander Dowie, who was flamboyant in his ministry style. He created some measure of controversy in Chicago and, in order to avoid the controversy, Moody and Torrey distanced themselves from Dowie by neglecting to preach about God’s power to heal.*

Now, the point of my writing here is not to provide commentary on either side of this theological debate, but rather make us question how we came up with our theology. If Dowie was unscriptural in his teachings or practice, that is one thing. However, it is equally erroneous to react the other direction and leave out important biblical truth simply because someone else is making it controversial.

In other words, if Moody and Torrey believed and practiced healing by the power of God in their personal ministry, then they should have preached it from the pulpit and lectern without regard to the controversy Dowie created. Or, if healing ministry is unscriptural, then they shouldn’t have believed or practiced it personally.

The point is that what we believe about God should be established by scripture alone and not in reaction to another person (or in reaction to society’s general opinion about a person).

God reveals Himself through people, yet people are still fallible. That’s why scripture is our constant. If a person errs, don’t overreact, but rather let the magnet of scripture pull your pendulum back to center, back to the balance where truths must be held in tension and mysteries cannot be explained by reason, but only by the person of God.

Only then will theology become deeper than intellect, for then we will cease to see mere people. Instead, we will see the Spirit of God at work within people and be able to honor them for what He has done in them, receiving the grace He has given them, and become a body united in Christ rather than divided by doctrine.


* Biographical details taken from Heritage of Healing, Kevin Dedmon, copyright 2009